Feature Article

Gotham Knights Devs On If Batman Is Really Dead, Gameplay Structure, And More

WB Montreal discusses its new game set in the Batman universe, making a distinctly new story, how the RPG systems work, and more.

After rumors, teases, and a few unexpected leaks, WB Montreal's Batman game has stepped out of the shadows. Except, it turns out it's not a Batman game as much as a Bat-family game. Gotham Knights brings together Batgirl, Robin, Nightwing, and Red Hood for an ambitious open-world crime caper that will pit players against iconic villains to keep Gotham safe.

The big twist is, in this game, Bruce Wayne and Batman are believed to be dead, which means the Bat-family needs to rise up to the challenge and establish themselves as the city's new saviours. It's an interesting premise that separates itself from the Batman: Arkham series in distinct ways, the most obvious of which is a greater focus on an RPG experience, and one that can also be played in co-op at that.

To get a better insight into WB Montreal's ambitions for the game, as well as clear up some details on the gameplay experience, we spoke to creative director Patrick Redding and senior producer Fleur Marty about the concept and structure of the game, as well as where it drew--or didn't draw--inspiration from.

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It's been a while since you guys have been in the public eye and a lot has changed around the last game that the studio has made and the narrative around it has evolved. You folks aren't exactly the same team that made that game, but I'm interested in what your image of yourself as a studio is? A lot of people think of you guys as the underdog next to Rocksteady, and over time people have shown a lot of love for Arkham Origins. How do you guys think of yourselves, your legacy in the Arkham franchise, and what you want to bring to Batman?

Fleur Marty: Well, so as you said, we are not the team who made Origins. Of course, we are living with the legacy of the studio and the games that have been put out before. But right now, we are so excited to have the opportunity to take on a whole new take on the Batman franchise and to explore a completely different universe than the Arkham one. And to just introduce to the gaming world our Batman family and present this, we call them the new guard, those new heroes. They're young and they're full of possibilities and opportunities. And I think actually that speaks to the studio itself. A lot of the team is actually new and full of hope and exploring new opportunities.

Patrick Redding: Yeah. And to echo that, being in the Montreal development space, obviously we're pulling together people with a huge range of AAA game development experience. And it does feel like a new guard in a lot of ways. And at the same time, it's also bringing in and integrating people at the studio who worked on Arkham Origins and had worked on, in a supplemental way, on our Arkham Knight. And so we have this interesting DNA that combines a lot of different influences and experiences and is kind of the perfect soup just to start working on this new take on the franchise and on the IP.

How did you reach the Gotham Knights idea and the team-based thing. Obviously the Arkham series is massively important and with Rocksteady moving on from it, most people would have thought, "Oh, it makes sense for WB Montreal to pick up where they left off and carry on." But you've gone full pivot in another direction. How did you reach that and was there any trepidation around that? It is quite an ambitious move going from one character to four.

Redding: I mean, it was very much a decision that we arrived at relatively early. And what I would say is it's about finding a new formula. It's not about trying to replace or just continue or prolong the thing. It's about saying, "Okay, let's take a step back and take a different look at the Batman universe and what are some of the opportunities that haven't yet been explored?"

And I think the first thing that we arrived at was we have this amazing Batman family. We have a bunch of characters who, while they have some of the Batman crime fighting DNA, are all different, distinct in terms of the style of play that they support, their temperament, their narrative background. And I think what we loved about that was they're all awesome crime fighters in their own right, even at the start, but there's clearly a lot of room for growth, right? There's room for each of the four characters to evolve and become something that's really different and special. And you see it explored from time to time in the comics, in the movies and other media. And we said, "This is an area that we haven't really dug into," which is what happens when I as a player find this hero that really matches my style and my whole sensibility. And then I'm allowed to kind of grow them into knighthood in a sense, turn them into Gotham's new Dark Knight.

Marty: And as it relates to Gotham city, it was also what bomb can we throw in there to shake up things too? So what bigger bomb can there be then say, "Okay, Batman's gone." How does it affect the city? How does it affect the criminals or the villains that start to crawl out of the shadows? It's very much about, yeah, shaking up the status quo and bringing new life to all this.

Redding: Yeah. It really did come with a different look at Gotham City. Gotham City suddenly has this whole other spotlight shone on it as a consequence of that first choice.

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Right. So the Batman thing--Bruce Wayne/Batman, is dead. Are we talking dead dead, undercover dead, Lazarus Pit dead? What kind of dead are we talking about?

Redding: Dead dead.

Dead dead?

Redding: He's dead. He is dead from the start of the game.

So is it fair to say that Bruce Wayne/Batman will not be in this game?

Redding: Not playable.

Marty: Yeah. No. Only characters that you can play are Batgirl, Robin, Red Hood, and Nightwing.

Because the running theory is, "Oh, he's embedded in the Court of Owls."

Redding: Right. Sure.

Marty: No. We see all the theories, but yeah. No. He's dead dead.

How did you avoid falling into the same grooves that other media has done with these characters? For example Bruce Wayne has been dead in the comics a bunch of times. And in that scenario, Dick Grayson takes up the cowl and Damien comes along. Did you look to those kind of stories and say, "We can do this as well"? Or was it as a conscious case of, "Let's not do that. Let's move away from that. Let's not make Dick, Batman. Let's not do this kind of stuff"?

Redding: I mean, we were really fortunate in a way, because of our relationship with DC that we could get into a room, not only with the books, but with some of the creators of those books and say, "Okay, we don't want to literally do a battle of the cowl game. That's a different plane of experience. And we have this sort of underlying mystery and the kind of mystery that brings together a family that maybe hasn't talked to each other for a while and then puts them in a position to try to figure out, "Who's going to step up and try to fill that vacuum?" Because as a player, that becomes my story. If I'm reading about it, then of course it's awesome to see all of the weird dynamics of that. But as a player, I want to know that whatever choice I make, the game supports it and it validates it and it gives me huge potential to grow.

We could look at those original stories, but we knew we had to have our own thing. We knew we were going to be coming up with our own original narrative, our own original take on these characters as they evolved, and the range of possibilities for each of the four. And yeah this frankly was one of the reasons why we had to do our own interpretation and really kind of build our own take on the DC Batman and DC universe. It was to kind of build it in a way that would support this game and this player experience.

Marty: And we know that some players, well, probably all of our players will have their one favorite. And it's really important for us to say, "Well, whoever is your favorite, there is a cool outcome for them and you won't be forced to just stop playing them because the story dictates that you have to play another character and grow that other character into the Dark Knight."

A while back Scott Snyder tweeted a reference to the Court of Owls before anything else had happened. And as we all know, Paul Dini worked on the Arkham Asylum. What kind of relationship have you had with Scott Snyder or Capullo or anyone else within DC when making this?

Redding: Yeah. I mean, one, it's been great in the sense that when we originally arrived at the direction we wanted to take with DC, right away, they were like, "Great, well, this is awesome if you guys want." And it was very much, "If you want, we can get you into a room with Scott, with Jim Lee and some of the other major stakeholders of the Batman universe and you guys can go through your ideas on it."

And we did. And honestly, it was a remarkably collaborative and really supportive relationship with that. Those guys, I mean, they're creators, so they could easily put themselves in our shoes. They do both happen to be gamers. That helps. So we had an opportunity to get into a room for almost a full day with Scott and just kind of workshop these things and talk about the arcs that we were interested in. And he made recommendations, but it was very much he understood that what we were doing was by its very nature going to be an original story.

How much does this game focus on the Court of Owls? You teased a load of other symbols and that kind of stuff. There's the thought that, "Oh, this is kind of like the Origin set up where a bunch of different factions are attacking, like League Of Assassins and that kind of stuff." Is it very much a Court of Owls story?

Redding: [Laughs] It's impossible for me to answer that question without giving away a bunch of stuff that I don't want to give away. No, here's what I'll say. The Court of Owls is a really important foundational piece for the game because their connection to Gotham's history is part of how we made our Gotham. So our Gotham City, it's built on these five boroughs and each of the boroughs has a history. It's connected to different families. It's very much a Gotham City that has been built up historically. And so obviously that's one of the big things that the Court of Owls gives us.

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Does not having Batman limit the kind of villains that you are able to pull into the game in any way? Obviously people tie Batman to Joker, but does that mean if there's no Batman, you can't have him or you can't have Hush show up? Can you have other major villains or do they need to be a certain type of villain that kind of can be applied to the entire family?

Marty: No, actually, I don't think this gives us any limit on whatever we want, because those ones you mentioned, they're not just tied to Batman, they're tied to Gotham. That's at the heart, that's the connected piece. And so yeah, the full answer is nope, it doesn't limit it.

Redding: Yeah. And I think one thing that's great is when Batman is gone, because of the weird relationship he has with his villains, they're also struggling to reinvent themselves. So you have the heroes that are going on their arc of evolution and then the villains, I mean, part of what makes the villains that we're going to be showcasing is that they are also in a position where they have to adjust their approach and their agenda and who they are as a consequence of losing their greatest nemesis.

So one of the big questions is the actual format of the game and the gameplay structure. A lot of people are trying to find other points of reference to liken it to, and the one that keeps coming up is Destiny, where it's like a kind of persistent universe. Can you, in your own terms, explain what this game is and how you play it?

Marty: It's pretty simple. It's a third-person, open world action RPG. And I mean, that kind of sums it up. The whole game is fully playable solo. You can play on your own offline if you want to. There is no always online. And on top of that, if you want to experience that with a co-op partner in a very seamless drop in, drop out way, you can do so. And so there are no game as a service elements designed into the game. Yeah, that's pretty much it.

Redding: Yeah. That's the simple, short answer that I think people are looking for.

I guess structurally, is it similar to older Batman games, where you're going to points to find quest markers and then the story beat plays out and then you go to another point and solve a thing? Or is it more traditionally like Witcher style with quest givers?

Redding: Well, comparing ourselves to Witcher is probably a … don't do that situation. But what I'd say is it's not what I would call the oatmeal chocolate chip cookie model of just go here and then trigger that. I mean, it's a living breathing ecosystem that supports a robust set of crimes out in the open world that could be committed by different factions, under different circumstances, with different objectives and goals. And your ability to go in and disrupt that night after night is also what's helping to [shape the city] ... You're completing certain challenges and doing things for NPCs, all these things that are going to ultimately lead you to, in some cases, another major piece of the storyline. And I'm saying that both in terms of the major mystery arc as well as, for example, the villain storylines.

So like everybody else, we work, we try to balance out how much of it is an open world experience versus how much of it is a narrative-driven experience. And what we came up with was a model, kind of a system of tracks for the player that they can kind of change lanes at their own liberty, which is great because it means different players are going to frankly experience that content different ways.

Marty: And I just want to riff off something that Pat mentioned just in passing, but the night after night thing is actually really important because our game doesn't take place in just one night--it's over many nights.

Redding: Many weeks and months of crime fighting.

Marty: And exploring our villain stories and all that.

Can you clarify how the story part of that works? Does each character have their own story happening or is it like different perspectives on the same overall story?

Marty: Yeah, I think the story is the same. You will get some nuances of course, because some characters have special relationships with certain people in Gotham City, but the overall story is the same whoever you're playing.

So if I start the game as Batgirl and then replay it as Nightwing, they generally will be on the same path, but with minor nuances to it?

Redding: Yeah. I mean, when you get into a major narrative beat, the person you're talking to for example, like if you're speaking to a villain, their history with your character is often going to be reflected in the kind of dialogue that you're seeing. So even if the overall structure of the story remains consistent and it becomes something, you can dip into and out of with different characters if that's how you want to play, as Fleur put it, there's nuance, there's moments of nuance, the relationships in particular, that is reflected.

One of the interesting things that you talked about during the narrated gameplay video was, as you grow in your abilities, the enemies grow with you. That makes a lot of sense in terms of level scaling and that kind of stuff. From a design and player experience perspective, how do you balance keeping that challenge and maintaining the wish fulfillment, empowerment fantasy that people get out of being Batman or being one of these characters?

Redding: Right. So the long story short is there are multiple axis for the player to progress on, right? It's their abilities, it's their gear. It's the specific loadout that they're bringing to the fight with them. So the player is constantly being presented with choices that they need to make. The second part of it is that when you're out in the open world, it's not to say that, "Oh, I'm level 10. So now everybody I face is level 10." There is kind of a range and a mix of encounters and enemies types that you're going to be dealing with. So players still, they're going to occasionally find themselves in situations where they have a very strong sense of being more powerful than their enemies. And in other situations, they're going to be more of the underdog. And I think what's great about that is we're not level gating our content. It's something where players have access to this content and to the whole world and to the crimes that are available to it. But they can at least assess whether this is a higher or lower risk situation for themselves.

Marty: Yeah. I think it's really important to mention there is no situation of, "I can't go to that part of the city because the enemies are too high level. I need to climb my way to there." The game is going to be scaling with you.

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How big is the city and is there a convenient excuse to remove civilians from it like in previous Batman games--it's Christmas in Origins, for example, and the people are scared and evacuate in Knight. Will the city be fully populated with cars and people, and is there a day-night cycle?

Marty: In terms of size, we have five boroughs that are across several islands, connected by bridges and all that. So it's a fairly big city. But also to tie it with your question about population, it's also a very dense city. That's something we really wanted to go and do--provide that fully living, breathing Gotham City experience to players. It's not a city where the population is missing or whatever. Of course it takes place at night. So again, day night cycle, where you're playing at night. Daytime is when you're in the Belfry and you're busting and gearing up for your next night of crime fighting. So of course you won't have crowds, but we have citizens. And that's really important for us because it's also, they are the one at the heart of all this, of the criminal factions and the GCPD going a bit rogue and chasing vigilantes. So the population is also at the heart of this.

Redding: Yeah. I think it's an ecosystem, right? And to have an ecosystem, you need all the pieces of it, which means you need citizens and you need the way they react to you as a vigilante or as a crime fighter versus how they'll react to you eventually when you kind of become known and trusted for them. You have a police force that is ostensibly protecting the citizens, but doing it in the most brutal, heavy-handed fashion possible. And then you have these criminal factions. And so that ecosystem demands a dynamic, very interactive version of Gotham. Also, like Fleur mentioned, it's not just one night. You're going back night after night of patrol, night after night of party crashing on crime, which means that the city needs to be very much alive and has traffic and all of those sorts of things.

Marty: Yeah. And big enough to give you all of those things to do. And also, we like to think about it also in terms of layers, because as a crime fighter, a lot of what you do is patrolling the streets, but you're also gliding over it or parkouring through it, grappling. So it also has that notion of layers.

One very quick follow up. Bit dumb. I'm not going to do this but people will want to know: what does the game do if you try and run someone over?

Redding: [Laughs] Well, so, yes, that is a very specific question. There are systems in place. Our AI, one of the things that they are good at trying to do is avoid getting run over, particularly if they're a citizen. Obviously we don't want to take away your fun. So if you're going to drive your batcycle into the middle of a criminal activity in progress, there's a number of ways you could use the batcycle to springboard yourself--and if you want to go super loud, just a launch an attack, you can absolutely do it. And yeah, we make sure the AI is designed around that.


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